Considering Whiteness

[Guest post by Roberto Bedoya, Executive Director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council. Mr. Bedoya reflects on the need to consider the impact of unconscious racial perspectives before we address diversity policies in the sector.]

My friend Doug asked me to respond to the recent blogs about diversity by Clayton Lord, Diane Ragsdale, Nina Simon, Barry Hessenius, and Ian David Moss that have been circulating in the arts blogosphere. With some hesitation I said yes. I’ve been reading them as they have been posted and the responses they have triggered within me are of interest and dread. Interest, cuz they are my peers – very smart ones and there is something to be learned from their commentary. Dread… because once again feeling I’m encountering Whiteness and it racial frame of thought. So that’s behind my initial hesitation to Doug’s request, but as I often say to myself when the field is foggy and the route unclear, onward. I will be not responding directly to the many concerns and ideas that have been raised in these blogs; instead I want to begin a discussion of Whiteness in response to them.

[From the previous post, here are links to some of the blog posts to which Roberto refers: Nina Simon has written that the Irvine Foundation is having difficulty getting strong proposals for its Exploring Engagement program. Clayton Lord has presented several concerns about the difficulty of institutional transformation, especially with respect to diversity as defined by race. (Diversification as Disruption and The Weight of White People in the World). And Diane Ragsdale has weighed in with On coercive philanthropy and change, acknowledging that funders and organizations need to be honest with themselves and others about the time and money required for significant institutional transformation. (And since I drafted this a bit over a week ago, Barry Hessenius has joined the fray–Coercive Philanthropy? Legitimacy v. Wisdom as has Ian David Moss–Why aren’t there more butts of color in these seats?  Ian always gets style points for his titles.)]

Whiteness is the dominant ideological framework that exists in the cultural sector. It is the default frame that defines cultural value and worth; it is used (mostly unconsciously) to analyze, classify and quantify both what is understood as the norm and the notions of “other” – of diversity. Both Ian and Clayton acknowledge Whiteness in their commentaries and I appreciate that because to understand the ideology of Whiteness and how it operates in our sector, white folks must spend time unpacking it. Doing so is essential to advancing our field. Yet, it must be more than acknowledging the whiteness of the aforementioned bloggers; some critical analysis of how Whiteness operates in the sector must be undertaken, as difficult as that may be.

In regards to Ian’s comment about expressive life and his question “why aren’t there more butts of color in these seats,” I think about which seats these are . . . and where?  When I reflect upon the seats I’ve experienced as an audience member or arts presenter, many of these have been on the lawn, where I’ve danced (badly) in a folklorico ensemble as a teen; on the lawn where I witness my nieces dance eloquently with their folklorico group as a proud Tio; on the lawn where I’ve seen the Teatro Compensino perform; seen the SF Mine Troup; seen the Tucson Pops. And people of color are there. Yes, there are seats in music halls and the black boxes; there are also those seats on the lawn where very often you can experience strongly the expressive life of our multi-racial society. Maybe the discomfort that Ian refers to is the difficulty of how one sees diversity and where it sits, inside and outside of the phrase he used “white people’s terms” – as charged as this sentence may be it must be part of the conversation. To quote Mark Twain:

“You can’t depend on your eyes
When your imagination is out of focus”

Diane’s commentary about coercive philanthropy bothers me. Not that her remarks are all wrong, but I ask myself why does this policy shift trouble the organizations that she pointed out. Is it because the shift is perceived as being out of line with the mission of “professional arts organizations” or is it because it is out of alignment with the Whiteness framework that in which they operate? The Irvine Foundation’s focus on low-income and/or ethnically diverse audiences demonstrates a commitment to support the broad and diverse range of expressive life in our society and a commitment to equity, which I agree with.

What I appreciate about Clayton’s commentary is his reference to James Baldwin’s “the weight of white people in the world” and how in his openness to examining that “weight” he acknowledges the “inertia of whiteness” to study and unpack the ideology of Whiteness as it relates to understanding expressive life and life’s many forms of participation. This understanding is essential to being an arts leader of this time. I encourage him to continue down this path…. not alone but in concert with his allies, both white and people of color.

I mentioned “dread” earlier. It’s tied to my cultural history and, in my long career in the arts, memories of being in many conversations about diversity, too often being the lone person of color in a room of white folks. That feeling of dread which initially shadowed my reading of these blogs is tied to a certain fatigue associated with the lack of progress I’ve witnessed in the area of racial equity in the field that many whites and people of color feel as well. What all these blog remarks prompt for me is the question: how does our sector understand and validate different worldviews and phenomenological experience that enliven our plurality?

I am quite aware how when one brings up the topic of Whiteness silence and avoidance is a common reaction. However, I am reluctant to have a conversation about diverse audiences and philanthropy policies without first engaging in critical reflection and critical witnessing to how Whiteness operates in the cultural sector. So tag – Clayton, Diane, Nina, Barry, Ian, and Doug. I ask you to write about it… not now in the immediate form of the blogosphere that is set up for rapid fire remarks but in two weeks time or longer. And to share with us some of your good thinking and deep reflection on your understanding of how the White Racial Frame intersects with cultural polices and cultural practices. I will do the same.

Roberto

 

 

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Comments

  1. Maribel Alvarez says

    DOUG: It would be VERY helpful to your readers to have hyperlinks to original sources Roberto alludes to, as in: “the recent blogs about diversity by Clayton Lord, Diane Ragsdale, Nina Simon, Barry Hessenius, and Ian David Moss ”
    Can you add please so those of us coming late to the conversations can follow the thread?
    thanks
    Maribel

    • says

      Maribel,
      Great point. My last post had some links: http://www.artsjournal.com/engage/2013/02/from-here-to-there/

      I will try pasting an excerpt below to see if the links come along.

      Nina Simon has written that the Irvine Foundation is having difficulty getting strong proposals for its Exploring Engagement program. Clayton Lord has presented several concerns about the difficulty of institutional transformation, especially with respect to diversity as defined by race. (Diversification as Disruption and The Weight of White People in the World). And Diane Ragsdale has weighed in with On coercive philanthropy and change, acknowledging that funders and organizations need to be honest with themselves and others about the time and money required for significant institutional transformation. (And since I drafted this a bit over a week ago, Barry Hessenius has joined the fray–Coercive Philanthropy? Legitimacy v. Wisdom as has Ian David Moss–Why aren’t there more butts of color in these seats? Ian always gets style points for his titles.)

      OK, that didn’t work. I’ll see what else I can do. In the meantime, go to my previous post and follow the links in the second paragraph.

  2. says

    Dear Robert,

    Thanks for your thoughtful post; I promise to share thoughts in a couple weeks after some reflection. I sincerely appreciate the prompt/invitation to do so.

    Warmly,

    Di

  3. says

    Roberto,
    Very happy to engage in this dialogue with you. A clarifying question: in asking us to engage in critical reflection on “Whiteness” and the “White Racial Frame,” are there specific definitions of these terms that you would like us to consider in our response, or do you want us to essentially invent their definitions as part of our response?

  4. Roberto Bedoya says

    Ian

    I’m interesting in your thoughts on how you see whiteness and the white racial frame at play in the cultural sector. There’s no specific definition that I ask you to reflect upon. Your understanding of the meaning of these terms, their impact, that ‘s what I hope to read about. Thanks very much for participating in this discussion

    Roberto

  5. says

    I’m really happy to have stumbled onto this conversation on a late Friday afternoon. I am wide awake now! Last weekend I attended SphinxCon: Diversity in The Arts Conference in Detroit. What an amazing group of smart, caring people from the arts sector were there, just like this blog. Although I work in a university setting where discussions of diversity are common and where David Roediger, author, researcher on whiteness, teaches this is the first time I’ve heard “whiteness” suggested as something to be interrogated in the arts engagement sector. Duh!
    Really pleased and looking forward to following the conversation.

  6. says

    How is the ‘white racial frame’ defined? This thread seems really vague, and toggles between frame and canvas, metaphor and allusion, economic and identifty groups. Whiteness may be a dominant framework in the US culture sector, but consider the country majority. Go to China or Kenya and you see something different.

    Unconscious bias is all around us, about gender, age, economics, creative and authentic voices.

    What is unique and compelling about our very conceptual country is the American frame. We are outspoken experimenters and collaborators, unique in the 19th, 20th and 21st century.

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